Rev. Drew Stockstill
As for Me and My House
September 19, 2021 Rev. Drew Stockstill
Joshua 24:1-8; 13-15
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors — Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor — lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians, and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the wilderness a long time. Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant. Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
Well, friends, after six weeks we come to the end of our journey through the book of Joshua. And what a journey it has been, from the wilderness into the Promised Land. We’ve heard of the strength and courage of Joshua as a faithful leader, and the courage of the people of Israel. We met the wise and courageous Rahab and we’ve wrestled with the violence and the promises, the grace and the power of God. And now we come to the end of Joshua.
Joshua is the weary soldier, appointed by God to follow Moses in leadership, and to lead the people through battle after battle to take their long hopped for place in the land promised to their ancestors, centuries earlier. Joshua is now 110-years-old. He sent out word through his messengers to gather all the tribes of Israel in a place called Shechem. And so, they assemble, these battle-weary elders, and judges, and officers, and men and women who have been going nonstop for all their lives. They’ve been wandering, and fighting, and doubting, and fearing, and rallying, and trusting, and often just surviving in hopes of making it to this very moment.
The summit of Mt. Gerizim overlooking ancient Shechem. Photo courtesy of the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands)
The old military leader makes his way to a place high enough that he can look out over the many faces. Is it all they had hoped for and imagined since they were children in the desert, hearing from their grandparents of a land beyond, a mysterious land of Promise, flowing with milk and honey? How does it feel to have arrived?
Joshua sees the faces that force smiles because, “aren’t we supposed to be happy to be here?” But Joshua knows they are hiding more grief than the happiness they can muster, because Joshua knows that family lost both their children along the way, and this man’s father died the day before they made it into the land he had long dreamed of. Joshua sees the faces of the soldiers forever changed by the extreme violence they witnessed. He sees their relief and pride, and the flickers of guilt and regret, and he shares their sleepless nights and dreams. Joshua looks out on this sea of his people, and he remembers Moses, who gave his life to God and these people, earning their trust enough to lead them out of 400 years of slavery, trusting they would one day arrive in this place, in this moment. Moses would be so proud of them, and perhaps Joshua felt a catch in his throat and tears fill his eyes when he imagined how proud Moses would be of him; but he quickly brushed the flicker of bittersweet pride away and lifted his voice yet again, one last time, to announce the Word of the Lord to this congregation of strong, courageous, faithful human beings: “My people, thus says YAHWEH, the God of Israel…”
My friend, Rob, is a pastor in California. He is currently leading his congregation through a sermon series about emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic. It sounds really cool and timely. I told him, “Rob, I think it’s a good time to do that sermon series on emerging from the pandemic. You were smart, Rob, to do that now, now that we’re emerging in a way – still cautious, still watching trends, but definitely emerging.” And I told him, how I had done my own sermon series on emerging from the pandemic, and I called it “EMERGE” and I did it back in June of 2020! Boy was I delusional or what? I thought for sure we’d be emerging from the pandemic in the middle of that sermon series more than a year ago. Those sermons had a hopeful even triumphant tone to them and I think I imagined back in June or July of last year, that we’d be coming out of our short four-month quarantine and back to a new and even better normal. More than a year later, Rob’s own sermons on emerging are more nuanced, reflective, and certainly more based on reality and my previous naïve optimism.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though? “Christ Lutheran Church members, gather together. Come out of your quarantines, get out from behind your computers and phones, assemble the people from across Harrisburg into the church on Allison Hill and hear the word of the Lord.” And then our community would come together and we’d have 50, 60, 80 people – adults and children – hugging each other, and happy to be back together, and also grieving those we have lost, and also singing loudly and feasting joyfully, and kneeling together at this altar rail to receive communion bread and wine. Wouldn’t it be nice to have battled our way through a pandemic and political strife and to have, like the people of Israel, been able to clearly have emerged? I admit, that is not far from what I envisioned in the summer of 2020.
Our reality is, well, more subdued, wearier, less certain of what has occurred and what it means, and how it will impact us for months and years ahead. The people of Israel had a clear entry into the land: they passed through the River, they entered the land, God handed it over to them, and they now possess it. Christmas morning has come and gone and they are surrounded by the toys and games and paper and half-eaten breakfast casserole and left-over cinnamon rolls -- and now what?
There may have been a clear emergence into the Promised Land but Joshua’s final task is not only to celebrate their triumphant entry, he must set the stage for what is in some ways more difficult, living day-to-day with the gifts we have been given. They are no longer a people oppressed in slavery. There they had no freedom, little choice, and much hopelessness. They are no longer a people wandering in the wilderness where they weren’t certain what would come next, if they would survive, how long it would last, but they knew they were on their way. But now what? How do we live now? What do we do next? Who are we if we aren’t slaves, if we aren’t wandering nomads, if we aren’t a people emerging, but a people who have arrived?
Joshua knows the people face a new and unique challenge, being, living as a free people in the land they long dreamed of. Joshua makes a wise choice as a leader to ground this transition moment in gratitude. He could have stood up before them and said, “People of Israel long ago your ancestors were given this land, and today, through your strength and courage, you have taken this land. Today is a testament to our unique and exceptional power and brilliance. We dug within ourselves and found the courage to do what’s never been done before. Well done! Now it is our right to dominate this land, to make it fruitful, so that we may reach even greater heights.” Joshua could have given the speech of a military leader who successfully led his army through war. He could have spoken like a president building up the feeling of individual power of his exceptional people. But Joshua does something else.
Here at the threshold of a new way of being, Joshua grounds his people in gratitude, and interconnectedness with God, with their tradition, with each other, and with creation. He does not congratulate them for what they accomplished, he reminds them that everything they have and all they have done is a gift from God.
Over and over again, Joshua tells the people in his speech, that they are where they are because God brought them here. He speaks for God when he tells them, “Thus says the Lord, I took your father Abraham from beyond the River, I gave him Isaac, and I gave Isaac, Jacob and Esau, I gave Esau the hill country, I sent Moses and Aaron and I plagued Egypt. I brought you out of slavery. I brought you into this land, I handed it over to you.” In this important time of triumph, God grounds the people in the truth that they did nothing alone, and they are where they are because this is where God brought them. They did not earn the Promised Land, they are not there because of their hard work, they are not there because they were particularly faithful, or good. They are there because God made a promise, God keeps God’s promises, and God brought them every step of the way. “I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built … you eat the fruit of the vineyards and olive yards you did not plant.” You are where you are, and you have what you have because God gave it to you. Thanks be to God.
Over a year ago I imagined we’d have a triumphant emergence from our challenging time of COVID-19, but the reality has been different. But what Joshua does for his people in this moment reminds us that even though this time has struggles and wanderings, disappointments and battles, we have been given so much. When we stop and remember all God has done for us, how far God has brought us, we know we did not get here by our own strength alone. God brings people into our lives that help us. We have inherited the fruit of others hard work. God gave us this life, all that we have. We participate, but we don’t do it all by ourselves.
Joshua’s final act as a leader is to remind the people of their long history, of how much they have gone through to reach this moment and show they how God was working all along to bring them to this moment and give them what God promised. After listing all God’s deeds he invites them to do one thing: “Now, therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness.” He invites us to put away all the other things we cling to for security: our work, money, possessions, our technology, our politics, put them away and put our trust in God who have proven to be faithful all along. God has given us grace upon grace, God has called us into a community, given us the faith to believe, placed within us a spirit of hope, and promised us that not even death will separate us from the Love of God. All good things in our lives are gifts from God. And in return God asks only for our hearts, that we trust God and serve God.
And that is where we are today, church, and every day in every situation, we are invited to remember all that God has done in and through us, how far God has brought us, and to give thanks. We are given a choice each day to offer our thanks and praise to God. To lean into not our own strength but into gratitude, especially for God who has proven to be trustworthy. Joshua, in his final act of leadership could have made sure history recorded his accomplishments, and rattled off a list of all his heroic deeds, but instead he reminds the people that God has been faithful to them and now it’s their turn to recommit their faithfulness to God. “Choose this day whom you will serve,” he tells his people, and then leads the way, “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
The people follow, remembering how God has always protected them, they declare, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” “So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem,” then, “Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances. After these things Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being one hundred ten years old. They buried him in his own inheritance … in the hill country of Ephraim, north of Mount Gaash. Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the Lord did for Israel.”